Commentary: Iraq: Hard Lessons and How to Use Them

By Bruce Nussbaum

War enacts its own reality. President George W. Bush confronted that fact in his speech when he acknowledged that the American occupation of Iraq was not going according to plan. He admitted that the pacification and rebuilding of postwar Iraq was going to cost more, take longer, and require the help of the U.N. To Congress and the public at large, who were told that American troops would be welcomed with flowers, that Iraq's reconstruction would be paid for by Iraqi oil, and that most U.S. troops would be coming home very soon after victory, it was a sobering message.

The President is absolutely right in saying the U.S. must not retreat from the task of making Iraq into a stable, safe, and secular country. Weakness and failure will only embolden extremists. But to win the battle against terrorism now requires an honest dialogue about what went wrong and what should be done going forward. With terrorists pouring into Iraq, the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein still at large, the U.S. faces the task of making America safer with fewer old friends and more new enemies. The level of anti-Americanism around the world has never been higher.

The next six to nine months are crucial. Unless the U.S. floods Iraq with more troops to secure it and billions more dollars to rebuild it, the country could devolve into a killing ground for America, sapping its economic and military strength. But to prevail, the country has to understand the lessons learned since the invasion. Here are some of them.

-- A foreign policy of unilateralism didn't work, even for a superpower such as the U.S. The failure of diplomacy with Turkey hurt the postwar military effort by preventing the Pentagon from sending troops quickly from the north into the Sunni/Saddam heartland of Iraq. That helped Saddam to remain free, regroup his Baathist ranks, attract outside terrorists, and kill U.S. troops. France certainly made it difficult for the U.S. to win a Security Council vote for regime change in Iraq. Yet the U.S. was unable even to get old friends such as Mexico, Chile, Turkey, or Germany to support it. China and Russia refused as well. The decision to invade without the U.N. mandate is now undermining the effort to enlist India, France, Turkey, and Pakistan to send tens of thousands of soldiers to reinforce and relieve U.S. troops. They still insist on a multilateral U.N. umbrella.

-- The doctrine of preemption was discredited by an enormous failure of intelligence. Weapons of mass destruction have yet to be found, although both the Clinton and Bush Administrations believed they were there. No evidence of Saddam being behind September 11 has surfaced, even though polls show that most Americans believe he was. In the aftermath of September 11, the U.S. embarked on a new foreign policy of preemption. It meant invading countries even if they posed only a credible threat to the U.S., not an actual, imminent one. It was war by choice and required excellent intelligence to work. That intelligence was lacking in the decision to wage war in Iraq. The burden of proof will be much heavier for future conflicts.

-- The Rumsfeld military doctrine lost credibility. The theory of transforming the U.S. military into a smaller, more mobile, and more technologically lethal force appears deficient in Iraq. During the war itself, a larger invading force might have subdued Saddam's areas of support before they had time to organize. Postwar, a much larger occupation force than is currently on the ground is needed to provide security. How you win the war and how you police the peace afterward are as important as winning. Indeed, there is a danger of reading too much into the Iraq victory, which is being publicized by military "transformationalists" as proof of their doctrine. There was no test of it. Saddam's army didn't fight, instead dissolving in the face of U.S. forces to regroup as guerrillas. Battling guerrillas takes more troops, not fewer of them. Yet when then-U.S. Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki testified that it would take 250,000 to 500,000 troops to secure Iraq based on experience in Bosnia and Kosovo, he was quickly rebuked by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.

The truth is that U.S. can't sustain the troops it has in Iraq. A Congressional Budget Office report said that the U.S. may have to cut its 140,000 troops there in half by the spring if the country is to remain prepared for conflict in North Korea. The commanders on the ground in Iraq understand that. They recently took the unusual step of bypassing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to join with Secretary of State (and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) Colin Powell in asking President Bush to go back to the U.N. for a new mandate that would get foreign troops into Iraq. It's clear the U.S. military wants a multilateral occupation.

-- The cost of the war to American taxpayers was vastly underestimated. Pentagon officials assumed that a quick victory by "decapitating" the army and the Baathist bureaucracy would leave a functioning society in place. They planned for refugees, but not for looting. And they said Iraq's huge oil reserves would pay for nearly everything.

Facing a different reality, President Bush has called for $87 billion in emergency spending for Iraq and Afghanistan next year, a sum more than twice what Washington spends on K-12 education. And this is on top of $79 billion previously approved by Congress. It appears that it is far cheaper to fight a multilateral war than a unilateral one. America's unilateral foreign policy means the U.S. must foot the entire bill in Iraq unless it can belatedly persuade Europe and Asia to share the burden. In the first Gulf War, U.S. taxpayers shouldered only 7.6% of the total cost. Continued expenditures on Iraq will contribute to huge budget deficits for years to come, threatening future tax cuts and domestic programs such as the Medicare drug entitlement and perhaps fueling higher interest rates. Already, the federal deficit is approaching 5% of gross domestic product.

-- The domino effect of removing Saddam has not occurred. Getting rid of him was supposed to clear the way for a new road map for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It hasn't. It was supposed to scare North Korea into freezing its program of building nuclear weapons. It hasn't. It was supposed to curb terrorism in the region. It clearly has had the opposite effect: Before the war, Iraq was not a hotbed of terrorism. Postwar, it is. We created what we said we wanted to prevent.

What is to be done? Rebuilding Iraq is now all the more important. Short term, the U.S. must get a large number of foreign troops onto the streets of Baghdad fast. We don't have the time -- or the desire -- to increase our own army fast enough to do what is needed in Iraq. This irrefutable logic requires Washington to make a deal in the U.N. to share decision-making in Iraq with France, Russia, and other members of the Security Council. The job of policing the streets should be given to others while American troops under U.S. command battle terrorists and Saddam holdouts. A deal won't be easy. But it can be done. European companies will have to get a piece of the reconstruction pie. The U.S. worked with NATO and the U.N. in the first Gulf War, the Balkans, and Afghanistan. To stop Iraq from becoming another lawless magnet for terrorists, it must do so again.

Long term, the U.S., Europe, and Asia must shape a new post-Cold War consensus on foreign policy. The central questions of the day are: When does a state lose its sovereignty, and who decides when a country is committing actions that warrant intervention? President Bush is correct in saying that the rise of terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction change the rules of the game. But what are the new rules? Richard Haass, director of policy planning at the State Dept. under Colin Powell from March, 2001, to June, 2003, and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, writes in the summer/fall 2003 issue of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs that states should lose their sovereignty when they harbor terrorists, commit acts of terrorism themselves, or threaten global security. He doesn't believe "promoting political or economic reforms warrants armed intervention." With what we now know about WMDs in Iraq, war would not have been warranted under Haass' code of preemption.

Under British Prime Minister Tony Blair's code, it would have. In a 1999 speech in Chicago, Blair said that preemption is legitimate to stop the proliferation of WMDs, the spread of terrorism, and genocide or ethnic cleansing. He also said preemption might be necessary to end brutal dictatorships and promote democratic values. However one decides, these criteria provide the basis for an international consensus for a new post-Cold War foreign policy.

There is also room for rebuilding the multilateral institutions to enforce that new foreign policy. President Bush has said for some time that the old security arrangements don't work in a world of terrorism and WMDs. NATO is already taking on new post-Cold War roles in the Balkans and Afghanistan. Now, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is suggesting that the U.N. needs to be reformed, especially the Security Council. Expanding the council to include India, Japan, and Brazil and ending the single- member veto to allow majority voting would make the U.N. a far more credible and efficient multilateral organization. The U.N. has shed blood in Baghdad. It has become a target. This puts the multilateral institution on the same side as America in the global war against terrorism.

President Bush, who likes to make bold moves, should lead the way in reintegrating America into the fabric of the global community. He has shown leadership in bringing the Eastern European nations into NATO, expanding foreign aid, and boosting money for AIDS in Africa. His next task should be to take foreign policy away from the failed unilateralist ideologues in his Cabinet and return it to the internationalists. It may be the only way to save Iraq and reassert U.S. influence around the globe.

Nussbaum is editorial page editor.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.